Photographic Representation of Harriet Tubman

The most well known photographs of Harriet Tubman were taken after 1870, a decade after her Underground Railroad missions. Like her contemporaries Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883), Tubman exploited the photographic image to raise funds and spread public knowledge of her life. Cartes de visite and cabinet cards were popular forms of photography during the nineteenth century. Cartes de visite were 2 ½ x 4 inches albumen prints on card stock and were relatively inexpensive to purchase. People collected portraits of their family, friends, people of note, and celebrities and mounted them in albums. Cartes de visite rose in popularity during the 1860s and were still in use through the 1880s and 1890s. Introduced in the late 1860s, cabinet cards were a larger format, 4 x 5 1/2 inches prints mounted on 4 ½ x 6 ½ inches thick card stock, and were often displayed in the home. Tubman posed for pictures for both cartes de visite and cabinet cards.

Photography was a powerful tool for African Americans seeking to reshape their image during the nineteenth century. Frederick Douglass understood the power of photography, both its social and political potential. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith note that “for Douglass, pictures enable us to see ourselves as if from the outside and, from this more distanced view, to contemplate and assess ourselves, drawing up plans for improvement. . . . pictures are the very foundation of progress, and photographic portraits can be catalysts for social change.”[1] Douglass exploited photographic portraiture to create a carefully controlled representation of his personhood. These photographs are Douglass’s “attempt to make [his exceptional life] a representative life,” argues Laura Wexler, “indeed to represent that life and introduce the formerly excluded black man into the national pantheon.”[2] From his twenties until close to his death, Douglass used the photographic convention of the three-quarter bust and oblique angle to create a consistent and powerful image of himself.

Sojourner Truth engaged in a similar project, exploiting the new technology for self-representation and using the cartes de visite and cabinet cards to reach supporters and raise money. Between 1863 and 1875 she sat for twenty-eight different photographic portraits in fourteen different sessions, dressed in tailored clothing, white shawl, and a plain white head wrap.[3] Nell Irvin Painter, the noted biographer of Truth, asserts “The photographs insist: ‘I am woman.’ Black woman as lady went against the commonplaces of nineteenth-century American culture. But by circulating her photographs widely, Truth claimed womanhood for a black woman who had been a slave, occupying a space ordinarily off limits to women like her. She refused to define herself by her enslavement.”[4]

Tubman seems to have used photography much in the same way as Douglass and Truth. Overall, her photographic representation refutes her status as a former slave. Instead, we see Tubman dressed appropriately and plainly, and sitting in parlor-like settings or against blank backgrounds. Pamela Klassen in her writings on dress and the African Methodist Episcopal church, of which Tubman was an active member in Auburn, notes “For African American women in the nineteenth century, appearances were especially fraught with volatile meanings, as the line between seeming overly sexual or appearing presumptuously dressed above one’s station was a fine one.”[5]

In her portraits, Tubman’s dress reveals her ties to Methodism and respectable dress (except for the fancy dress in the 1868 portrait). Overall, she wears clothing in dark plain materials, a simple white shawl or white scarf tied at her neck, and a simple head covering. Plain dress was seen as a “personal statement of piety, as a declaration of spiritual egalitarianism, as a marker of group identity, and as a consumer tool used against slavery.”[6] Although Tubman’s choice of dress was surely ruled by her poverty, her conservative dress also reflected her understanding of how she would be “read” along racial, religious, and class lines. Contemporary sculptors have turned to these photographs in a quest to create an “authentic” image of Tubman.


[1]Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith, “Introduction: Pictures and Progress,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 7.

[2]Laura Wexler, “A More Perfect Likeness: Frederick Douglass and the Image of the Nation,” in Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012), 36.

[3]Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, Enduring Truths: Sojourner's Shadow and Substance (Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 2015), 11.

[4]Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 198-199.

[5]Pamela E. Klassen, “The Robes of Womanhood: Dress and Authenticity among African American Methodist Women in the Nineteenth Century,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 14, no. 1 (2004): 43.

[6]Ibid., 47.